Millions of Web sites were shuttered Monday morning after Microsoft executed a legal sneak attack against a malware network thought to be responsible for more than 7.4 million infections of Windows PCs worldwide.
The U.S. Justice Department is expected to announce today an international law enforcement operation to seize control over the Gameover ZeuS botnet, a sprawling network of hacked Microsoft Windows computers that currently infects an estimated 500,000 to 1 million compromised systems globally. Experts say PCs infected with Gameover are being harvested for sensitive financial and personal data, and rented out to an elite cadre of hackers for use in online extortion attacks, spam and other illicit moneymaking schemes.
Yesterday’s story about the point-of-sale malware used in the Target attack has prompted a flood of reporting from antivirus and security vendors. Buried within those reports are some interesting details that speak to possible actors involved and to the timing and discovery of this breach.
Security experts are warning that a newly discovered vulnerability in Internet Explorer 8 is being actively exploited to break into Microsoft Windows systems. Complicating matters further, computer code that can be used to reliably exploit the flaw is now publicly available online.
Lost in the annals of campy commercials from the 1980s is a series of ads that featured improbable scenes between two young people (usually of the opposite sex) who somehow caused the inadvertent collision of peanut butter and chocolate. After the mishap, one would complain, “Hey you got your chocolate in my peanut butter!,” and the other would retort, “You got your peanut butter in my chocolate!” The youngsters then sample the product of their happy accident and are amazed to find someone has already combined the two flavors into a sweet and salty treat that is commercially available.
It may be that the Internet security industry is long overdue for its own “Reese’s moment.” Many security experts who got their start analyzing malware and tracking traditional cybercrime recently have transitioned to investigating malware and attacks associated with so-called advanced persistent threat (APT) incidents. The former centers on the theft of financial data that can be used to quickly extract cash from victims; the latter refers to often prolonged attacks involving a hunt for more strategic information, such as intellectual property, trade secrets and data related to national security and defense.
Experts from across the security industry collaborated this week to quarantine more than 110,000 Microsoft Windows PCs that were infected with the Khelios worm, a contagion that forces infected PCs to blast out junk email advertising rogue Internet pharmacies.
Most botnets are relatively fragile: If security experts or law enforcement agencies seize the Internet servers used to control the zombie network, the crime machine eventually implodes. But Khelios (a.k.a. “Kelihos”) was built to withstand such attacks, employing a peer-to-peer structure not unlike that used by popular music and file-sharing sites to avoid takedown by the music and entertainment industry.